What I’m reading . . .

The Great Alone (novel)
By Kristin Hannah

I’ve never been to Alaska but this book makes me want to visit. Not only does the author do a fine job describing the majestic scenery of Alaska, she’s also able to capture who the regular Alaskan people are, how they live and work in the outback, logging and clearing roads in the short summer, and smoking strips of marinated salmon for the long, bitter winter. How can you not appreciate an author who is observant and sensitive enough to distinguish the difference between a lower-48, night sky (black) and the winter sky of Alaska (a velvet blue with ambient light from the snow-covered terrain). I loved reading Hannah’s prose.

But all that glorious setting and description is just the frosting on the cake. The cake being a wonderfully involving story of a family in the 70’s trying to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. The story is told from the daughter, Leni’s perspective. She’s a lovely, auburn-haired teenager, an only child, trying to survive not only the Alaskan wilderness (“there’s a hundred ways to die in Alaska”), but her troubled parents. Her violent, unstable father, Ernt, is an ex-POW from the Viet Nam war. Leni loves her sweet, chain-smoking mother, but cannot understand why she doesn’t leave her abusive father. Ernt becomes part of the extremist fringe in Alaska, wanting to keep the world away and live “back to the earth.” He wakes Leni up in the middle of the night to train her how to quickly assemble and load her gun in case of government attack.

When Leni discovers love with the son of her father’s worst enemy, Tom Walker, the town patriarch and progressive, I couldn’t help but think of the family conflict in Romeo and Juliet. I’m relieved to report this story takes an entirely different direction than Shakespeare’s tragedy. Leni struggles to adulthood, but finally discovers her own voice and freedom.

I can’t say how much I liked this book. Hannah does all the right things with character development and plot. I stayed up until midnight last night reading. And that, blog readers, is probably the best recommendation and review I can give any book.

What I’m reading . . .

Idaho (novel)
By Emily Ruskovich

I wonder if all books entitled with a state name don’t find an automatic audience of thousands of people within that state wanting to read the book. James Michener, an old epic author from the 70’s and 80’s used to title his novels after their state setting: Texas, Hawaii, Alaska. So, as an Idahoan, I approached Emily Ruskovich’s novel with a lot of anticipation. What would she say about our state and how would she characterize the people that live here?

I’m pleased to report Ruskovich writes a sensitive and human story of two women living in a rural area of north Idaho driven by love to the same damaged man, Wade. Wade is a homesteader and day laborer who has some kind of early onset dementia (his disease is never fully explained).

Though Ruskovich writes beautifully and expressively about simple things like a minister leaving a bowl of pears for a prison inmate, this is a brutal, tragic tale of domestic violence. Wade’s wife, Jenny, apparently in a jealous rage, murders their younger daughter, May. It appears to be a crime of passion, but the reader is not sure what happened. With Wade’s forgetfulness and Jenny’s obsessive love, there’s even a lingering question of whether Jenny was actually the murderer. The mystery of that fateful day is further amplified by the disappearance of the older daughter, June, who had a troubled relationship with her younger sister, May. It’s questions like these that propel the narrative along and keep the reader guessing.

Though Ruskovich is a gifted writer with a fascinating story to tell, some readers will be put off with the way the author jumps back and forth in time and between different character perspectives. Interestingly, readers are never privy to Wade’s perspective about what happened to his family. This story could have been too dark, but the ending is satisfying. There is always room for redemption in even the most despairing situation.

What I’m writing . . .

Getting Comfortable with Work

“Chop wood, carry water,” Ed told me sitting in his office. Ed was a colleague of mine and a Buddhist, so this was his response to the trials and tribulations of the workaday world. To me work was a much bigger venture. It was your career and your destiny. When things went wrong at work, it was a major crisis.  My thinking was how can I make this better?

But Ed was more matter-of-fact about the whole idea of work. He was a low-keyed educational psychologist that believed in energy chakras and hypnosis as much as Jungian theory or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Work was just one part of living to Ed. Work was not a gift, it was a necessity, and like food, water, and air, you didn’t think about it much, you just did it. In the big picture, work moved everyone and everything, forward.

I wanted to ask Ed, what about all those people who are passionate about their work? What about those people that say they can’t believe they get paid to do what they do, because they love it so much? Some people don’t just chop wood and carry water. Their work defines them and gives their life meaning.

Yet, if I was honest with myself, and thought about all the different kinds of work I’d done in my own life, I’d have to admit much of my work was in fact, chopping wood and carrying water. How many beds have I made, dishes have I washed, and meals have I prepared in a life time? I spent way more time doing these menial tasks than anything I did in my career as an educator.

I read a book many years ago by Carol Shields called The Stone Diaries.  It was about a woman at the turn of the century who’d worn a path leading out from her back door to her garden and root cellar.  That path happened because every day she walked it to gather the fruits and vegetables needed to feed her family. It was mind-numbing, walking this same route on a daily basis.  But if she didn’t do the valuable work of food gathering, who would?

I know people who actually are happy doing mind-numbing work.  I also know someone who got burned-out doing work he thought was a passion. My friend Steve was a postman for more than thirty years delivering mail on the same routes over and over again, but still he felt content and happy with his job.  Mike, on the other hand, a gifted woodcraft artist, abruptly quit carving wood last year and moved to Seattle. His comment: “The art took too much out of me.  It just became work. Frankly, I dreaded doing it.”

As I sit here typing on my computer I’m wondering if writing has become my work. Has it moved from a passion to chopping wood and carrying water? Maybe it’s not so bad, doing something you know and that feels comfortable.  It doesn’t hurt either, when your back rest is a pillow.